USF Alum Gives Advice to High School Grads: There's More than One Path to Success | USF in the News |

Every spring at Gunn High School, graduating seniors adhere to a tradition: posting college rejection letters on what has been dubbed the "wall of rejection" on the quad.


In 2008, Shounak Dharap's senior year, someone posted a fake rejection letter from Foothill College — a joke because no one gets rejected from the community college, and besides, he said, "Who would even go to Foothill?"


The perceived stigma of attending a community college stuck with him for years, as it has for many graduates of the Palo Alto Unified School District, where the vast majority of students go on to attend four-year colleges and universities and many alumni describe a deeply entrenched culture of competition and impossibly high standards.


After Dharap didn't get into any of the colleges he applied to, he decided to attend Santa Barbara City College for two years.


"It was a really rough two years for me going there just because (of) the shame of it all. Coming from Gunn, it was very hard to look people in the eyes that I went to school with and tell them I went to community college," he said in an interview with the Weekly. "It shouldn't be."


Dharap, now a lawyer in San Francisco, is among many Gunn and Paly alumni of all ages who have come to appreciate the more circuitous routes they took after high school. Together, their experiences tell the story of another Palo Alto: one that deviates, happily, from the cookie-cutter path that many high school students feel is expected of them after graduation.


The Weekly solicited these stories to coincide with graduation, with the goal of sharing real-life examples of Palo Altans who found success, happiness and purpose by making non-traditional choices after high school. The number of Palo Alto high school alumni who responded to a request the Weekly posted on Facebook indicates that these stories may be lesser known but are more prevalent than one would think.


Shounak Dharap

Dharap enjoyed high school. He had fun, made a lot of friends and enjoyed "side projects" like video production and cooking. But school itself didn't click with him, he said. He floundered academically.


"It was sort of like high school was a marathon, and I'm really more of a swimmer," he said.


Despite this, he tried to keep up. He took all the classes his friends were taking but did poorly.


He applied to the same kind of colleges his friends did — no state or safety schools — and didn't get in anywhere.


He eventually decided to go to Santa Barbara City College first and then transfer to the University of Southern California, where he hoped to study film. He said it felt like everyone around him was moving forward on a separate, inaccessible track to Ivy Leagues and other top-tier schools.


"One of my friends was crushed he didn't get into Stanford, so he went to Berkeley," Dharap recalled. "Here I was with a completely different experience. It was hard."


Instead of ending up at USC, he transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz. Still feeling disengaged from academics, he continued to get bad grades.


It wasn't until he figured out what he loved — law and the pursuit of justice — and decided to attend law school at the University of San Francisco that he began to achieve academically. Dharap got his first-ever streak of A's in law school.


Now a class-action and personal-injury attorney, Dharap hopes his path shows current students who struggle in school, "You may not be good at school now; it doesn't mean you won't be later." (Another Gunn alum, Nicole Naraji, summed it up: "You don't have to be a kick-ass student to have a kick-ass career.")


Dharap's experience also disrupted what he felt was instilled in him at Gunn: that there is only one key — good grades — to one door — college — to future success.


"That's what you're told: Your grades are your keys. You get through that door and you have a good job, good college, good life," he said. "But then you realize that there are actually a million different keys to open that door and there are a million different doors."


He said he sees failure as an "opportunity to succeed in a different way ... a time to self-correct and to shake things up."


Dharap feels so strongly about spreading this message that this year, he started attending Palo Alto Board of Education meetings to express his opposition to reporting weighted grade point averages (GPA) on student transcripts. In his eyes, the debate over weighted grades "perpetuates the idea that there is a single path to success."


In a guest opinion piece he penned for the Palo Alto Weekly in May, he reflected on what the debate would have meant to his high school self, who "slunk along" in the shadows of high-achieving friends, "shamefully clutching a 2.6 and hoping that nobody would notice."


"What of the 17-year-old me, who would have enthusiastically supported weighted GPA — to his detriment — because he wanted to be just as smart and capable as his peers?" he asked. "The 17-year-old me, to whom AP and honors classes were not 'academic risks' but simply what I was 'supposed' to do. That experience was not unique; it is a common story, untold except in the memories of countless students who have been pressured into conformity by a culture of academic exceptionalism."


Dharap is realistic: He knows that when people told him, as a Gunn student, that grades don't matter or that failure is a good thing, the message was nearly impossible to internalize. But he's hopeful that more and more stories like his help to break the mold of success in Palo Alto.

(via @PaloAltoWeekly)